Malignant Neglect: Substance Abuse & America’s Schools | CASAColumbia

Malignant Neglect: Substance Abuse and America’s Schools

Malignant Neglect: Substance Abuse and America’s Schools

Published: September 2001

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Drugs in schools are an enormous problem in the U.S., with fatal consequences. This report is a comprehensive analysis of available data on substance use in our schools and among students. It is designed to clarify how tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use affect schools and to suggest what it will take to make our schools and our children substance-free.


CASAColumbia’s work for this report involved:

  • Conducting focus groups and national surveys with teens, parents, teachers and school administrators
  • Analyzing national data related to youth substance use
  • Convening a panel of experts in education, finance, budgeting and psychology to help estimate costs of substance abuse to schools
  • Examining school-based programs designed to prevent and treat substance abuse or deal with its consequences
  • Reviewing more than 1,000 publications related to substance abuse and education


Almost 5 million middle school students (30%) and 9.5 million high school students (60%) reported attending schools where illegal drugs were used, kept and sold. These students were twice as likely to smoke, drink or use illicit drugs as students who reported that their schools were substance-free.

Researchers found that substance abuse and addiction will add at least $41 billion (10%) to the costs of elementary and secondary education due to class disruption and violence, special education and tutoring, teacher turnover, truancy, children left behind, student assistance programs, property damage, injury and counseling.

Each year, there were 13 million incidents where a 12-to-17-year-old tried tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy or some other illicit drug. Many Americans tend to look at experimentation with cigarettes, alcohol and illegal drugs as a benign rite of passage or as something kids will get over. However, this report found that a high proportion of students who experimented with these drugs continued using them throughout their years in high school.

The report revealed that many prevention programs designed to provide information about the risk of drug use and help students develop the will and skills to say “no” have an inherently limited value. There was little evidence that existing curricula have had any extended impact on student smoking, drinking or other drug use, because so many other factors—parental engagement, parental substance abuse, depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, low self-esteem, peer substance use, marketing and media influences—are beyond the scope of these prevention programs.


CASAColumbia recommends that parents, schools and communities strive to prevent all forms of substance abuse—not just illegal drug use. Substances of abuse are related to one another not only in terms of the statistical odds that a person who uses one substance is likelier to use others as well, but also in terms of their similar biological effects on the brain and the body. Schools, in concert with parents, students and communities, are encouraged to review their current approaches to prevention against the full range of factors directly linked to student substance use and abuse.

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